Lighthouses in Times of Darkness
Those were great feats, first-class cultural heroism. In almost impossible circumstances, in the XV and XVI century, at the time Serbian lands were under Turkish slavery, Serbian books were made in printing houses in Cetinje, Goražde, Venice, Rujan, Gračanica, Mileševa, Belgrade, Kosjerić… There is not a single copy among the forty-odd known titles from that time without traces of several centuries of use. Serbs were the only enslaved nation in the Ottoman Empire who printed books, expressing a higher cultural, spiritual and technological degree than their invaders

By: Predrag R. Milovanović

Every book has its story. The most important books, those that initiated or made significant changes and remained in the foundations of a culture, all have an exciting story. Sometimes it’s a story about the creative efforts, the hardships that accompanied their emergence, sometimes the battle with censorship, authorities, the public, or protecting the book from numerous dangers… Important books were written by important people. At the time of their appearance, their books most often arrived to those who first recognized the meaning and significance of the written words. Holding the first edition of Rajić’s History, Vuk’s Dictionary, or translation of the New Testament, Njegoš’ Mountain Wreath… means observing a genuine part of history, witness of time.
The story about every important old book is always a story of fighting and success. The books that arrived to us after several centuries or many decades were not preserved just like that. They didn’t travel through time with just anyone. They had to be in the right hands, many hands. Their previous owners loved them, or at least preserved them. They survived all the wars, devastations, bombings, migrations, the most difficult times… Sometimes only a dozen, several or just one copy was preserved from the original 200 or 1.000. They arrive to us with traces of reading and scars testifying about the fierceness of fighting and dignity of success.
These pages before the reader don’t have the objective to be an overview of Serbian books, because it is impossible to make on such a small space. This reduced selection was made with many limitations determined in advance (it excludes Serbian works printed in other languages, Dubrovnik literature, books printed in the so-called Bosančica, etc.). Our intention is just to remind of the existence of certain books, which had the greatest significance and highest range in Serbian culture, or those which were pioneers in certain fields. This time we are speaking about books published until 1683, and will continue in the following editions of National Review.


A year after the fall of Constantinople and Byzantine Empire, the name of Serbia has appeared already in the first pages ever printed with mobile letters in Europe. Gutenberg’s so-called Turkish Calendar, printed in 1454 before Gutenberg’s Bible, mentions Serbia in the poem for December (”They further write / That the Sultan has started off / To Serbia with his army / To the Hungarian border”).
Forty years later, at the time of Columbus’ travels and the last years of the rule of Đurđe Crnojević (1490–1496) in Cetinje, Zeta (its Old Montenegrin, mountain part, the last remains of the medieval Serbian state) – the first Serbian printed book appeared. The Cetinje Octoechos, completed on January 4, 1494, was printed in Serbian-Slavonic Cyrillic letters, thanks to local master Đurđe, the efforts of the ”humble priest” Hieromonk Makarije and seven of his monks, who later, after leaving Zeta, printed the first Romanian book. It is the first incunabulum in Cyrillic in the Balkans, printed in the first Cyrillic printing house founded by a Slav.
The Cetinje Octoechos is a quarto format book, with two-colored printing, red and black, 270 folios with 24 to 30 rows each, woodcut initials, capital letters and additional signs. By its contents, it is a book of prayers that begin on Monday after the Sunday of All Saints and end on Saturday before the Great Lent. It is one of the most widely distributed books in Orthodox Christianity. By its achievement, the first Serbian printed book can be compared with those from much bigger and older European printing centers.
The Octoechos of the Fifth Tone probably appeared the same year and was the most luxurious edition of this printing house, the first Serbian book with woodcut imprinted in the full format of the book. Only a fragment of it was preserved, four woodcuts of the original twenty-eight. The other two titles, Psalter and Book of Prayers, were printed in 1495/6.
It seems that the hieromonk and his brothers remained dedicated to work and faithful until the last days of freedom. Đurđe Crnojević fled to Venice before the Turkish invasion. This could explain why the Four Gospels printed in 1496 were not preserved and perhaps remained incomplete.
The graphics of the Cetinje printing house features a merge of stylistic elements, from Byzantine iconographic artwork, drawings with gothic characteristics, to renaissance details in the spirit of then Venetian printing. The high-quality printing in Cetinje served as a role model to future printers, and not only Serbian ones.


The first period of perishing of Serbian printing lasted until 1519, when two new Serbian printing houses were founded, almost simultaneously.
The printing house in Goražde has a remarkable place in the history of Serbian book. It was founded by Božidar Goraždanin with his sons Teodor and Đurađ. Three books, ”handicrafts”, printed in this house – Liturgicon (1519), Psalter (1521) and Breviary (1523) – signified the revival of Serbian book and were the first books printed in the European part of the Ottoman Empire.
In Venice, Božidar Vuković founded not only the most important Serbian printing house, but also a kind of a Serbian sanctuary, realizing the single long-term and continuous Serbian cultural endeavor in the XVI century. Printing books was a profitable business, but Vuković most probably started this endeavor led by political convictions and in order to make a legacy. He managed to reconcile the interests of Venice, Rome, Serbian Church, and the duties he later accepted after receiving an aristocratic title and coat of arms from Charles V.
Božidar Vuković’s printing house between 1519 and 1539 and later between 1546 and 1561, while it was managed by his heir, his son Vincenzo, printed more publications with higher circulation than the total number printed in the XVI century in the territory of present Serbia.
The most significant is the first book from Vuković’s printing house – Liturgicon from 1519, completed most probably only a few days after the edition from Goražde. As the first Serbian book printed outside of the nation’s land, it was the herald of the later continuous cultural connection between Serbs in the enslaved homeland and the West. All Serbian printing houses of the time were probably supplied from this place in Venice.
Especially charming is the third book from Vuković’s printing house – Book of Prayers, the so-called Book for Travelers, from 1521. It is the first Serbian book which addresses a wider circle of believers. It is a very small format book (93 x 65 mm) and the rarest among this printing house’s titles.
The Octoechos of the Fifth Tone from 1537 has particularly beautiful woodcut on the entire folio, while the Holiday Menologium from 1538 is the most complex and most voluminous endeavor of Božidar Vuković, featuring supreme skills of this printing house and XVI century Serbian printing in general. It includes two Serbian services, two Teodosije’s (to Simeon and Sava) and one Tsamblak’s (to Stefan of Dečani). Judging by the number of preserved copies, this was the most widely distributed Serbian book of the time. The Octoechos from 1537 and Holiday Menologium are the only Serbian books printed both on paper and parchment. Božidar Vuković gave one such copy, in leather binding, as a gift to the Chilandar Monastery.
Considering that he hadn’t received either a vow or support from his father, his son Vincenzo did an extraordinary work. Left without any handmade templates, Vincenzo renewed his father’s editions, trying to introduce new graphic elements. The most wonderful example is the Psalter from 1546, with each page with text edged with decorative frames.


The Four Gospels of Rujan from 1537 is the first book printed in the territory of present Serbia. It was printed by monk Teodosije, with humble skills, improvised technique and unequally, in the Rujan Monastery of St. George near Zlatibor. The book touchingly testifies about the feats of monk Teodosije, who obviously created the book in unthinkably difficult circumstances.
The large format Octoechos of the Fifth Tone was printed in 1539 in Gračanica Monastery, Kosovo. Upon the request of Metropolitan of Novo Brdo Nikanor, it was created by ”Christ’s servant Dimitrije” looking up to the editions from Cetinje and Venice, with original elements expressed mostly in the woodcut presentation of the monastery.
Already accustomed to slavery, the founding of the Mileševa printing house was initiated twice, in 1544 and 1546. The afterword of the Psalter from 1544 notes an exciting testimony about purchasing the printing press from Venice.
A unique endeavor in terms of printing quality and the only such attempt outside of the Serbian Church was undertaken in 1552 in Belgrade by Duke Radiša Dmitrović, Trojan Gundulić from Dubrovnik and Hieromonk Mardarije. They printed the Four Gospels with ceremonial letters, the most beautiful book printed in the Serbian lands up to then. After the departure of Hieromonk Mardarije to Mrkša Church, where he founded a printing house ten years after the Belgrade one, the printing of Serbian books in the Balkans stopped.
After Vincenzo’s withdrawal, Stefan of Skadar and later Jakov of Kamena continued the work in Vuković’s printing house in Venice until 1566. Sporadic attempts of Jerolim Zagurović, Jakov Krajkov, Stefan Paštrović and Sava Dečanac (the latter two printed the Alphabet Book in only two folios in 1597), as a reflex and effort to continue the work started in Vuković’s printing house, ended in 1638 with Jakov Ginami’s Psalter, the last Venetian edition of Serbian-Slavonic books.
The appearance and life of Serbian book in the XV and XVI century are characterized by excellence unseen in the cultures of other nations. First of all, the degree of self-sacrifice, vitality and persistence of those who initiated printing in impossible circumstances of slavery. The preserved books alone testify about the meaning of those inspiring and farsighted endeavors. The total of forty-odd known titles printed at the time all have traces of centuries-long use, which is not the case with any corpus of books of the time. Also testifying about the strength of the feat is the fact that Serbs were the only enslaved nation that printed books in the Ottoman Empire. It is a case very rare in history, that the enslaved people expressed a higher technological and spiritual degree of development in some field than their invaders. However, the unbearable living conditions under the Ottomans finally led to the shutting down of all Serbian printing houses.


Until the XVIII century, the Serbian people, repeatedly decimated and scattered in the vast area of three powerful states, without any cultural center or road sign, lacked any conditions for printing books.
A recent discovery of a book, unknown up to now, largely reduced the time vacuum in the history of Serbian book and raised hope in future discoveries. Menologium from 1719 appeared as the first Serbian book printed in Cyrillic after 1638, from a dark place of our cultural history. It was printed in Vienna, based on a Russian template, in twelve copper engraved folios, with over four hundred of miniature menologium presentations.
This discovery does not reduce the significance of Hristifor Žefarović’s Stematography (Vienna, 1741), considered the turning point of new Serbian literature.


Predrag R. Milovanović (Svilajnac, 1954 – Belgrade, 2015), expert in old and rare books, collector, one of the greatest bibliophiles in Serbian culture and supreme experts in old European publishing. He collected and left the biggest collection of old Serbian and Balkan books and the biggest collection of old Belgrade vedutas and maps. He returned some of the most precious books, such as the ”Dečani Chrysobull” or ”Dušan’s Code”, to Serbian treasuries. He founded the ”Orfelin” antique shop and managed it for a long time in Skadarska and Knez-Mihailova streets, so entire Belgrade knew him as Peđa Orfelin. He wrote ”Serbian Cornerstone Books” for ”National Review” and ”Princip Press” in October 2009 (”Meet Serbia” edition, book 22). If he hadn’t departed, he would have been sixty-five today.

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